I checked the comment feeds for both ads and they were filled with angry designers and developers demanding they to get off their Facebook. It’s understandable that a new technology claiming to replace human beings gets us a little nervous. The world changes fast and the internet has always been ready and willing to disrupt any industry out there that’s vulnerable to disruption.
Will the same thing eventually happen to digital agencies?
Paradoxically, the more companies there are using great design as their distinct advantage over competition, the more others try to ‘game the system’ by selling (or buying) design at rock bottom prices. Whether it’s a design contest, Wordpress themes, or hosted software there always seems to be a new way to cheapen the practice of design or programming — skills that take training and years of experience to master.
Agencies now don’t just have to compete with other agencies, they have to compete with cheap products that claim to make agencies superfluous. Will designers ever become obsolete? Will developers ever code themselves out of a job? Should we all just save ourselves the hassle and go sell insurance for a living?
Here’s the reality:
Agencies who thrive don’t sell execution
All of these low-cost software products and crowdsourced websites sell the execution of a logo or website, not the strategy of what gets executed.
When you’re an agency, it’s absolutely essential to have a clear value proposition. If all you’re selling to clients is “professional logos” or “clean, functional websites” then you are leaving yourself open to be replaced by robots.
A client doesn’t hire you because you’re the only way they can get a professional website. They hire you because you and your team have the collective skills and experience to steer and guide their business towards success.
Don’t sell “nice looking websites” because as an agency, your execution is expected to be solid. But there will never be an app that replaces in-depth research, industry-specific experience or customized strategy and that’s what your client is buying from you.
Cheap clients have always existed
If you’re like me, you were watching Alf and Gummy Bears in the early nineties and you may forget that the advent of desktop publishing software threatened to put designers out of business. Since anyone could choose their fonts and lay out their brochure on their own Macintosh without needing to typeset by hand, why would anyone hire a designer? Of course we know that was bullshit then the same way as it’s bullshit now.
Any small business owner who wants to DIY will use contest websites or learn whatever software is required to pinch pennies. They aren’t going away, and you obviously don’t want those types as your clients — so stop thinking of them as lost prospects.
Choose the right clients
With so many digital agencies competing locally and globally, not to mention the cheap alternatives, the agency market is more competitive than ever before.
But guess what? So are your clients’ markets. How are they going to stand out without great design or innovative marketing strategies? Everyone wants to be “the Apple of [insert industry]”, but you can’t be Apple while at the same time scrimp on cheap designs and stock website templates.
It’s not easy, but you have to attract clients who are a good fit with your culture (and vice versa). If you are trying to compete with 99Designs or Fiverr on price you’ll never win because their value and your agency’s value are completely different.
How do you price your services according to their value?
Don’t sell deliverables
When you sell deliverables - in other words, when you sell a ‘three page website design with up to two rounds of revisions’ your client is inherently going to compare apples to apples (which are, in fact, oranges).
If in their mind they can get the same product for 1,000% less, they’d be crazy to hire you. That’s not their fault, it’s yours because you’re letting them think they’re comparing two products of similar quality.
The deliverable you sell is only a product of the thinking, consultation, research and testing that went into it. You need to make this clear when your client is reviewing your proposal.
All the strategy in the world isn’t going to make a lick of difference if the end result is still the same as a $30 Wordpress theme. That’s why you need to sell results.
If you can quantify what you’ve done for past clients then your new client will evaluate your pricing based on what they’ll be earning back in profit, not on the fact that they can get a website cheaper somewhere else. $50,000 is an easier pill to swallow if you are convinced you’ll make 5x that.
Selling results is impossible (or simply a lie) if you don’t quantify your work, which is why it’s so important to measure everything you do. If you’re a marketer you’re likely already better at doing this than a design/development agency because so much of your work is based around benchmarks and goals.
If you’re not doing this already, make it part of your process: When kicking off a project with a new client get access to their Google Analytics account right away. As you form the strategy for the project figure out the one metric you want to impact with a re-design. It could be traffic, keyword rankings, amount of leads per week, sign-up conversion rate… whatever it is, pick the one that will positively affect your client’s business.
Go a step further and use software like Crazy Egg or KISSmetrics to learn even more about how users currently interact with their existing website, come up with a line in the sand, and do everything you can to meet or exceed it.
This may seem like a lot of work, but it’s marginally more work than just designing based off of gut intuition and the payoff will come six months down the road when you can go back and see how your design moved the needle on your client’s business. Then use that data when selling to new clients.
Will Fiverr or 99designs ever be able to claim to provide hard results or offer their customers ongoing measurement to keep improving their bottom line? Will they run reports to see what’s working and what’s not along with ideas to rapidly refine designs so that they will achieve results?
That’s what an agency does. And that’s what you should be selling.
It’s not enough to survive. You want to THRIVE.
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